Back in May, Target announced that it would no longer be selling the Amazon Kindle. Earlier this month, Wal-Mart followed suit. While neither big box retailer explained exactly why they’ve declared war on Amazon’s tablet, the motive is clear. Every time Target or Wal-Mart sells a Kindle, they put their brick and mortar stores in jeopardy by providing Amazon even greater reach in its digital retail power grab. Viewed in this context, the tandem moves are direct, sharp-shooter responses aimed directly across the bow of a major competitor.
The real problem for big box stores is that consumers are increasingly utilizing physical stores such as Target, Wal-Mart, Best Buy, and others as nothing more than showrooms. They take potential purchases for a test drive, and then log onto mobile devices or home computers to buy from Amazon and other e-tailers that might be selling the same product for less (and pick up other household staples while they're there—free shipping, why not?). As BGC Financial technology analyst Collin Gillis told the New York Times, selling Kindles "encourages consumers to step into that ecosystem."
All the while, Amazon is establishing warehouses and kiosks that can provide customers in major metropolitan areas with same-day service, thereby eroding a key brick and mortar selling point in the process. The digital and physical retail worlds are colliding. With the increased competition that accompanies the phenomenon, at least two major big boxes are apparently taking a "no more Mr. Nice Guy" approach.
In truth, halting brick and mortar sales of the Kindle is really nothing more than a Band-Aid on the bullet hole created by mobility’s impact on e-commerce. The number of active mobile devices is expected to exceed the world’s population by the end of this year. That means just about anyone who walks into a brick and mortar establishment has the ability to snap a photo of a barcode, upload it to a mobile application, and compare competitors’ pricing on the spot and in real time.
Target and Wal-Mart can’t keep these devices out of consumers’ hands by themselves, and they can’t engage in the unending game of whack-a-mole that is a race to the bottom on price. As such, what’s needed is a communications and marketing approach that emphasizes everything shoppers still love about the brick and mortar shopping experience—and that does so on the digital landscape consumers have come to love just as much.
Simply put, big boxes need to infuse their online properties with all the service and convenience advantages absent from e-tailers that are often nothing more than glorified middlemen. The overarching message is that Amazon might have what you need; but we know what you need because we offer the tools, perks, and expertise that ensure the most informed and enjoyable purchase possible.
It’s a best-of-both-worlds strategy that accepts the "bricks and clicks" reality of today’s retail marketplace. Fortunately, there a number brick and mortar retailers that are already providing templates for how it’s done.
Nordstrom, for one, is meeting the bricks and clicks challenge head on. The chain’s online shoppers might not hear that live piano player in the background as they point and click or be able to grab a bite at the café after making a purchase, but there’s little else about Nordstrom’s traditional brand that is absent from its digital presence.
First, Nordstrom’s online shoppers have access to any item in any retail location across the country—a melding of online and in-store inventories that remains rare in the retail world today. Customers can see all available sizes and colors of a particular item and can actually see them modeled by a real person, rather than just a screen shot of the apparel lying against a white background. If customers have questions, they can call a "personal stylist" at the Nordstrom call center, which isn’t outsourced, but rather staffed by specialists with all the expertise of those who assist customers in the men’s department or at the cosmetics counter.
Second, Nordstrom places significant emphasis on ease of use for online shoppers. Customers are never more than two or three clicks away from the content they want to access. Searches can be performed based on department, brand, or lifestyle. With the site’s simple yet elegant design and limited navigation options, it’s likely easier to get lost at a brick-and-mortar Nordstrom location than it is to end up repeatedly clicking the "back" tab on your Web browser.
Third, Nordstrom’s online shoppers are provided all the same benefits they would receive if making a purchase at a brick-and-mortar location. Returns of online purchases are just as easy as those of items bought in person. And for those customers who crave the convenience of online shopping but still enjoy a trip to the store from time to time, Nordstrom provides the capability to make a purchase online and pick the item up same day—and without the wait or shipping costs to boot.
Finally, Nordstrom’s website is fully integrated with its social media presence. Its Facebook page, which is liked by more than 1.6 million people, and its Twitter profile, which has more than 200,000 followers, provide forums where customers can discuss fashion and resolve any issues they might have. Nordstrom even shares fashion interviews on a YouTube channel that boasts more than 4.3 million video views and is using mobile applications to alert its consumer community to upcoming sales and events. The use of video is especially advantageous, as it provides a leg up over the competition in terms of search engine optimization (SEO).
While none of these features represents a groundbreaking leap forward in e-commerce, forward-thinking retailers such as Nordstrom are showing the big boxes how they can remain relevant in the digital age. By applying traditional brand strengths to the digital presence, every retailer has the ability to provide consumers with what they want most out of their bricks, as well as their clicks—and that’s an absolute imperative at a time when competitors are bearing down from all sides.
Follow Richard Levick on Twitter and circle him on Google+, where he comments daily on the issues impacting corporate brands.
Richard Levick, Esq., President and CEO of LEVICK, represents countries and companies in the highest-stakes global communications matters — from the Wall Street crisis and the Gulf oil spill to Guantanamo Bay and the Catholic Church. Mr. Levick was honored for the past three years on NACD Directorship’s list of "The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom," and has been named to multiple professional Halls of Fame for lifetime achievement. He is the co-author of three books, including The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis, and is a regular commentator on television, in print, and on the most widely read business blogs.
[Image: Flickr user Caro Wallis]